Ah, January, it’s here at last, and not a moment too soon. Time to return to a more normal pace of life and a healthier routine, particularly if your December left something to be desired in the wellness department. For many of us, January is ‘fresh start’ season, when we get back on track and re-focus on the more health-positive practices that may have gotten a bit rusty during the holidays, and maybe add a few new ones to the mix as well.
As you wade into the waters of this brand new year, you can increase the odds of making positive changes stick by letting go of the old school all-or-nothing mentality that can torpedo good intentions (in a matter of days!). Instead, work on developing new healthy habits over time. What’s the best way to do that? One approach to consider, borrowed from behavioral science, is known as ‘habit stacking’ – it can help make 2023 a banner year for your body and your mind. Here’s where to start:
Habits that we want to grow, break or change come in a variety of flavors. Some of our positive habits we perform without effort or fuss, we just get ‘em done. Think, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, walking the dog. And there are those less than stellar habits we need to break, like scrolling on electronic devices late into the night, not getting enough exercise, eating too much sugar, drinking too much, the list goes on. These are the areas where we need to introduce new, healthy behaviors and turn them into habits.
Habit stacking is about creating links.
Your mission is to dial down the bad habits and amp up the good – and habit stacking can help. The idea is that you use the positive habits you’re already got and link them to another activity (or two) that you need to be doing more of, building a chain of positive behaviors. When you link habits, you remind yourself, almost without trying, to perform the new activities you wish to lock in.
The result? Over time, these activities become so inextricably linked that performing them all the items in a particular ‘stack’ just feels natural. Over time, you won’t need to set reminders on your phone or make to-do lists – the habits will become automatic, no external prompts required.
Think of habit-stacking as a neural pathway hack.
The practice of habit stacking actually works by rewiring some of the neural pathways in your brain. Thing is, as we age, the brain goes about trimming the connections between the neurons that aren’t being used much and builds up the ones that are being used more. In other words, we’re neurally wired to do the easy or familiar stuff. So, if we want to add new habits, our best bet is to stack them on top of our well-wired, well-connected ones.
Let the stacking begin.
With habit stacking, you’re also minimizing the ‘pain points,’ or barriers to doing something new. Doing a set of squats for fitness might sound like a chore but if you get into the groove of doing them while brushing your teeth, not so much. If it doesn’t overload your circuits, try a double stack, let’s say flossing your teeth while listening to your favorite podcast and doing those squats. Be creative. Problems falling asleep quickly? Try trading your nighttime phone-scrolling routine for an old-fashioned paper book or magazine, to help downshift your brain and prep it for sleep. As these small add-ons are repeated, eventually they’ll become second nature, and you won’t need to think about them at all, you’ll just do them – the definition of a habit! And when you get that great dental checkup or find yourself admiring your toned, stronger quads or drift off to sleep at night in minutes, those little victories will serve as reinforcers to keep up the good work.
Breaking bad behaviors – it’ll take some effort.
Since the 60’s the prevailing wisdom was that it takes roughly three weeks to develop a new habit. More recently though, University College London researchers found that getting a new habit to stick is quite variable, requiring anywhere from 18 to 254 days, with an average duration of something like 66 days, or a bit over two months. My reading of the research literature, and my experience with my patients, is that habit stacking can make this a more efficient process. But remember to layer in some patience as well.
Dismantling bad habits may take a bit more effort. To break them, behavioral experts suggest a two-pronged approach, a mini-stack of sorts, which includes using a replacement behavior, preferably a beneficial one, to swap in as you swap the old one out (or taper off). For example, instead of gnawing your fingernails, chew instead on tea tree oil toothpicks to help keep your mouth occupied, freshen the breath, provide antiseptic benefits and give your fingernails a well-deserved break – wins all around.
The next recommendation is simply finding a strong internal motivation to make a change rather than just doing it out of some non-specific sense of duty. For instance, you might get in touch with your motivation to stay healthy and fit enough to play with your future grandchildren, as opposed to simply following diet and exercise advice because health experts tell you to.
Think of it as the ‘if-you-build-it-they-will-come’ approach – find the right motivation and the good habits will follow. Here too, remember that your not-so-great-habits are wired into the brain, so initially, it may take some mental effort to begin over-riding those synaptic connections – at first, it may be two steps forward, one step back. But with a combination of self-awareness, the right motivation, and the smart use of replacement behaviors, you should be able to stack the habit deck in your favor.
4 Simple Stacking Tips for the New Year
Safe to say, we all have behaviors we need to work on, be it good ones we want to improve or not good ones we need to ditch. When it comes to health and wellness, any improvement is worth making and stacking can make those goals easier to achieve, not only from a neural perspective, but, on a more tangible level by encouraging you to think about how you’re going to get yourself on a better path, and what you’ll need to make that happen. So, what’s in your stack? Here are some ways to help you build a few of good ones:
Start small: Think bite-sized chunks instead of the whole enchilada. For example, finding a half hour to go for a run can be tough, even overwhelming, but breaking it into smaller chunks mitigates the fear factor a good bit. So, rather than going in whole hog (and potentially risking injury), a few days a week, say Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, try doing three 10-minute spins on a stationary bike, or three speed walks around the block after breakfast, lunch and dinner to get into a more frequent movement groove – and let it grow from there. Go big or go home works for some things, but here, not so much. Keep things do-able, manageable, and build on those small victories.
Outsmart yourself: Sure, you know you need to be eating more plants, but how to do get that done? Look at every meal as an opportunity to slip more veggies in – make a game of it – but also make it a no-brainer. Meal prepping is a great way to idiot-proof your food choices, but if you’re pressed for time or don’t have time to portion out meals in advance, just keeping plenty of fresh greens, chopped fresh and/or roasted veggies and cooked proteins on hand will make dietary upgrades more of a mealtime no-brainer. Got more cash than time, then sign up with a healthy meal delivery service for a few months to get you into the healthy eating groove and keep yourself on track. Follow your plant rich meal with a quick walk around the neighborhood and a few minutes of meditation, and you’ll be stacking like a pro.
Have a plan: When stacking or adding behaviors to the positive ones you already do, be specific about how you and what you will do. As with the idea of having a replacement behaviors, identify the new habit you want to add to your stack, and plot out exactly what your process will be. Write down the basic habitual things you do every day without fail and identify what items you can add to them to build your stack. For example, if you’re trying to grow your meditation habit, try linking it to showering, and set the stage so you can make it an easy ad. Try getting out of bed and directly onto a pillow next to your bed for a five minute meditation session before doing anything else, so you can check meditation off your day-starting list and take on the day from a more relaxed headspace. Partner scurrying around the bedroom? Find a quiet space to do your thing, then hit the shower.
Slow your roll: As mentioned above, it takes time to ingrain new habits and break old ones, so be patient with yourself, but, as you would with a work project, set a timeline for yourself. For example, if you want to kick sugar, give your self a specific date to be done with the stuff and work on the steps to get you there. Or, say you want to go on a physically demanding trip in a few months, start stacking now and building more of the habits that will get you to the healthier place.